It’s not getting drunk, it’s getting cultured! And drunk.
Like chocolate and peanut better, sometimes two great things are even better when you enjoy them together. Turns out the same is true for Japanese sake and the ancient art of ikebana flower arranging, as I discovered at the first of a new event series in Tokyo called Sake with Flower.
The event series is the brainchild of sake coordinator Akiko Shibata and artist Akane Kawaguchi, who met by chance at a bar and started discussing how they could promote new ways of enjoying sake. Inspired by traditional cultural events like tsukimi (moon-viewing) and hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), they decided to find a fun way to marry sake, ikebana and the beauty of a spring night.
They brought in the talented ikebana artist Sayaka Toyoshima, who makes a performance of ikebana creation to help audiences understand the creative process behind it, and barely five weeks from Shibata and Kawaguchi’s fateful first meeting, the three held the first Sake with Flower evening on March 4th at the Earth+cafe&bar in Tokyo’s Kiba neighborhood.
For the first event, Shibata featured four sakes from Ichinokura, a brewer from Miyagi, choosing some interesting varieties to showcase the vast possibilities provided by the basic ingredients of rice, water, yeast and koji mold.
The first was Watashino-oto, a light easy-to-drink sake with just 12 percent alcohol, a bit less than your average wine. Even for sake beginners, this one would go down smooth. She also had two versions of a tokubetsu junmai sake, the first a namazake, or unpasteurized, version and then a pasteurized and slightly aged version, showing how the flavors evolve over time. And finally, as a coup-de-grace, she brought a rare koshu, or aged sake, to try. Although sake is often considered a drink best enjoyed fresh, it is possible to age bottles like wine or whisky, giving them a brownish tint and a rich, smokey flavor.
▼ Shibata pours sake for the guests while telling them a bit about it.
A plate of light appetizers chosen to pair well with the sakes was also available.
In between rounds of sake, Toyoshima treated us to ikebana demonstrations. First, she completed an arrangement on her own, using a bundle of plum branches. By candlelight, she wrestled the recalcitrant boughs into a delicate spray. Contrary to my image of ikebana as a rarefied and genteel pursuit, there was a fair bit of breaking wood across her kimonoed knees, forcefully bending branches into just the right angle and ruthless wielding of sheers. Still, in the dim light with 20 or so people silently watching and sipping on sake, it was a surprisingly peaceful and meditative experience.
For the next two demonstrations, Toyoshima handed out bunches of seasonal flowers like freesia and camelias to audience members, encouraging them to place the flowers however they liked. Then she added some other elements to complete the design. Finally, she explained a bit about the ikebana theory behind each creation and took questions from the audience.
▼ Toyoshima watches as an audience member contemplates her addition to the piece.
Although I’ve often appreciated the minimalist beauty of completed ikebana arrangements, it was the first time to see them actually being made. It was interesting to see the organic way the design unfolded as Toyoshima held up first one flower at various angles, then another, testing the way they leaned and how colors matched or clashed.
In the end, I’d say the event was a roaring success. In particular, it was heartening to see so many young Japanese in attendance, showing a keen interest in their traditional artforms when they can be enjoyed in a fun and dynamic way. There was a significant foreign presence as well, and Kawagushi and Shibata helpfully translated for the non-Japanese speakers in attendance.
▼ Toyoshima’s original piece
▼ Audience collaboration pieces
The series is still evolving, but organizers said they are hoping to hold a Sake and Flower event to ring in each season this year. If you are interested in attending, shoot them a mail on Facebook to let them know and keep your eye on their websites! We’ll see you there.